An opinion has been requested as to whether a member of the Board of Examiners of Pilots may accept the gift of a reception and boat trip from the Association of Maryland Pilots (the Association).
The Requestor here is an attorney who is a consumer member of the Board of Examiners of Pilots (the Board). The Board by statute includes three members of the Association. There are presently 92 licensed pilots in Maryland, who have the responsibility of piloting vessels (such as foreign tankers) from Cape Henry up through the Chesapeake Bay to their destination, usually the Port of Baltimore. These pilots are all licensed by the Board, and their working conditions, including fees charged, number of pilots required, etc. are regulated by the Board. The Association is not an employer; it serves as an employee association or union. The Association acts as a collecting and disbursing agent of piloting fees; it maintains collective equipment (such as launches); and operates the pilots' retirement fund. In adjudicatory hearings before the Board, the Association is usually the Petitioner, acting as a spokesman for the pilots.
The subject of this request is an invitation received by the Requestor to attend a reception sponsored by the Association aboard the Association's vessel, the pilot boat "Maryland. " This is an ocean-going tug luxuriously renovated into a yacht. It is generally maintained and used at Cape Henry but is brought to Baltimore once a year for maintenance. At that time the Association sponsors a series of receptions on board the vessel. Staff of the Association indicate that the purpose of the reception is to acquaint people involved in the business of Baltimore Harbor with the Harbor and piloting activities. It involves approximately 300 people, including the members of the Board, shippers, freight forwarders, shipbuilders and other management personnel in the Port community. The reception includes an open bar and buffet and an approximately 3 to 4 hour cruise to points of interest in the Harbor. According to the Association, the value of the reception is approximately $35-40 per person. Both the Requestor and his spouse were invited.
Section 3-106(a) of the Public Ethics Law (Article 40A, § 3-106(a) Annotated Code of Maryland, the Ethics Law) prohibits an official from accepting a gift from a person that is regulated by or does business with his agency; or that has interests that could be affected (in a manner distinguishable from the public generally) by the official's performance of his duties. The members of the Association are all licensed and regulated by the Board. The Association's funding comes from fees paid to individual pilots, which fees are determined by the Board. Also, the Association appears as a party in most fact-finding proceedings before the Board. Since the Association appears as a party before the Board and has funding directly impacted by the Board, we believe that it is an entity within the section 3-106(a) gift prohibition.
We thus conclude that the reception is a gift prohibited under section 3-106(a). The question, then, is whether it may be viewed as an exception under section 3-106(b). This provision permits acceptance of certain listed gifts provided it is determined that the gift will not impair the impartiality or independent judgment of the official, or, if of significant value, give the appearance of doing so or being intended to do so. One of the exceptions in section 3-106(b)(1) allows acceptance of meals and beverages. The Commission has in prior cases allowed acceptance of meals and beverages (see, e.g. Opinion No. 81-43), but has not directly considered the application of this section where the gift could arguably be viewed as involving other incidental benefits.
Taking all of the circumstances of this reception into account, however, we do not believe that there are sufficient additional benefits to take it out of the meals and beverages exception. The cruise is short, and though the "Maryland" is a cruise ship, we view it simply as a place to have a reception, which, fundamentally, is no different from a special room in a hotel or other building. Moreover, given the estimated value of the reception invitation ($40 per person), and the circumstances surrounding it, we do not view this situation as, on its face, raising issues as an intended influence on invited officials. We therefore conclude that acceptance of the invitation by the Requestor would not violate §3-106 of the Ethics Law.
Herbert J. Belgrad, Chairman
Jervis S. Finney
Reverend John Wesley Holland
Barbara M. Steckel
Date: February 10, 1982